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New Europe

Day Seventy-five: Budapest

The Széchenyi baths 
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More than a mere swimming pool. The Széchenyi baths, a veritable Palace of Water.
Michael Palin - New EuropeBudapest is a city of confident landmark buildings; some of them, like the Castle and the Royal Palace, have outlived their original purpose, or in the case of the Parliament building are too big for their present purpose, but all have a sense of style, scale and swagger. A quick visit to the revitalised riverside area of South Pest shows that the monumental tradition is not forgotten. The grand (my guidebook prefers 'overblown') Palace of Arts complex includes the largest concert hall in Europe, and the new National Theatre next to it is not just big but very wacky, with blue carpet on the outside walls, life-size bronze figures of famous actors and actresses sitting on seats and benches in the park around it, and the classical facade of the previous National Theatre beside it lying half-submerged in a tank of water. Practical and functional are not the first words that spring to mind when describing Budapest's architecture. These buildings have a purpose, of course, but far more importantly they must be celebrations of that purpose.

Bearing this in mind, I take my last bath, and Budapesters love to bathe, at the lushly ornate Széchenyi Gyogyfürdo, where healing spring waters bubble up from over 4,000 feet below the ground. There can be few places in the world where water is as lavishly celebrated. Even the word 'Gyogyfürdo', meaning a spa or medical baths, suggests something surreal and fantastical.

From the outside the baths look like a small Baroque palace. Inside is a domed central chamber with mosaic-tiled passageways leading to private bathing boxes and a hospital where patients are sent for special mineral treatments. White stucco erupts like fungus from the walls and semicircular panels depict, on one side of the room, Venus being bathed by four robed cohorts and on the other, Neptune assaulting a mermaid.

For a moment it's quite possible to forget that you've come here to get yourself wet. The very act of undressing seems to belittle the surroundings, but step through to the three steaming pools and you may, on a busy day, be in the company of a couple of thousand others. These are pools for hanging around in. There are no lanes and no Olympic wannabees cleaving the water. The most competitive activity is probably chess, which is played to a very high standard by men and women half-submerged, of course, in water.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-five: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 179

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